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Gerry Laybourne

Interview Date: 1999
Collection: WICT 20th Anniversary Collection Project
Note: Video is not available

laybourneGeraldine WICT5

 

 

INTERVIEWER: Now I've read a lot about you, but maybe I just want to get your version of how you became involved in the industry.

LAYBOURNE: I was a researcher and I had my own television company, but you know, I was interested in kids. I started out as a teacher. I had my own research company, and then I had my own production company. And I was interested in changing the face of children's television. I had strong opinions about what was wrong about broadcast television for kids. Largely, that they put kids in stereotypical boxes, and that basically, every program on television, except for public television, was look-alike action adventure, limited animation and it didn't feel like anything that was really too great or too -- in any case, it was very limited. So I, in my production company, I talked to all of the networks and major players, and the only - or the first client we had was Nickelodeon, and they were just a few months old, it was in 1979. They commissioned two pilots with us and we were the first company that they commissioned. I produced -- I got in the process of producing two pilots for them, and then in the course of getting to know them, they offered me a job and I came on staff, even before the pilots were finished.

INTERVIEWER: What did you know about cable at that time?

LAYBOURNE: I had had my introduction to cable by a guy named Bob Bidell, who lived in my apartment building. And he took a cocktail napkin, and drew a picture of how cable television worked on a cocktail napkin. And suggested that I go and meet a guy at HBO who was putting together a project called Take Two. So this was in 1979, and that fellow was Frank Biondi and Frank interviewed me for the job, and we got along really well, but they decided not to go forward with Take Two. And so he recommended that I call a guy named Niles Henson, at Nickelodeon. He thought I would really hit it off with what Nickelodeon was trying to do. So that was my introduction to cable.

INTERVIEWER: Did you have any initial impressions of the industry back in 1979?

LAYBOURNE: Well it was pretty primitive and what was exciting to me was that it was filled with people who were willing to try things. And I, of course, was part of what was happening at Warner, MX Satellite Entertainment. And just when I joined the company, I joined the company in 1980, they were beginning to work on this crazy idea of music television. And one of my first assignments Nickelodeon was to take a look at a show called Pop Clicks, which was actually the precursor of MTV and to make sure that it was good for kids and the right kind of material. And so I was part of this company that was trying very radical things and really inspirational people like Bob Pittman. Bob was inventing MTV as he went along. He was also inventing what has become the signature of cable, which is creating environments and creating packaging that speaks to niche audiences. Up until that point, it was really most things you saw on cable were sort of, let's see what we can collect in terms of movies and/or television shows and get them on the air. I'm trying to think of where CNN was. I think CNN came about in the early 80s. So everything was getting born at the same time. We were representing CNN's ad sales. So it was a very collaborative kind of pioneering, let's figure this out and we were watching each other, more than we were watching broadcasting.

INTERVIEWER: Did you have a sense of yourself as a pioneer, do you think?

LAYBOURNE: Yes. And we, we didn't have much money and so we knew that the only way we could succeed was by having really great ideas. By making sure that every single thing we did counted. That meant that everybody who worked on behalf of Nickelodeon or MTV had to deeply understand what our mission was, and we just couldn't waste a nickel.

INTERVIEWER: I just read an article about you in a book about your management style, Sally Helgesen's book, and how your management style really turned Nick around in the 80s. Can you talk a little bit about that?

LAYBOURNE: Sure. When I went to work for Nickelodeon, I was hired by a woman named Sandy Cavanaugh, who was very much a pioneer. She came out CTW and she had very interesting ideas about what to do with children's television. But they were completely different from the standards of broadcast television. And the day that I was hired, a boss was put in charge of Nickelodeon that Sandy then reported to. All of Sandy's ambitious ideas really got pretty much shelved. Nickelodeon reverted to some pretty safe choices, and for about 2½ years, put on things that were well behaved and nicely produced, but they didn't really speak to a kid. And I watched this process and at the same time, I was watching what was happening at MTV, where they were creating a really vibrant, loyal environment. I also watched the management style that we were being managed by, and it was very much of the boss is in charge, very hierarchical. The boss knows all the information and we never had any staff meetings. We never had any collaborative meetings. It was really doling out the assignment and for me, it was a rich period of time, because I was learning so much about scheduling and about production and about programming and you know, just the basics of what you need to know, but I kept a notebook in my head of, boy, if I ever got a chance to run this place, I would do it completely differently. And the first thing I did when I did get a chance to run it, was to take everybody at Nickelodeon, off-site, and say okay, here's the deal. We've been here for 3½ years. We know what works and what doesn't work. We're going to be honest. We're going to sit here and we're going to critique ourselves and we're going to go from here. That was the first real sense that everybody had that it was their channel. That they were going to take charge and take over. And we did. We had a takeover that was just ourselves, taking over. Nobody cared, but it was a real takeover. I wasn't formally given a title or anything to say that I was in charge but Bob Pittman looked at me and said, "You know I don't really know what you can do, but I have a sense that you can do a lot. And so why don't you just see?" I just took everybody aside and said, here's our chance to do what's right for kids. Let's pull together and do it. Some of the people couldn't pull together and I counseled them out but most of the people could. It was a small group of people but really smart, dynamic people like Debbie BC(?), and we brought Jeffrey Darby in at that point. We brought Scott Webb. and we had Fred and Alan. Fred Seibert and Alan Goodman, who had been instrumental in creating the environment for MTV, and we had them to work with us. We just collected a lot of really brilliant, creative people. Tom Corey, who unfortunately died last week, a young man. Tom Corey came up with the Nickelodeon logo, which was very transformational in Nickelodeon's history, because prior to that, it had been this kind of slick, silver ball. And no kid could attach to that. So Tom's charge was how do we connect with the kid's brain? The first thing that occurred to us is, kids thinking just transforms endlessly. So you know, they'll go from thinking about a dinosaur one second, to thinking about an egg, to thinking about a splat, to you know, and we just took that and said let's create a logo that really engages kids so that on their notebooks they're going to be doodling different shapes and putting Nickelodeon inside it. So it's a real participatory brand. At the same time, we had a brilliant music person, Tom Pompasello, who also died this year. It was a very rough year for Nickelodeon. And Tom Pomposello decided that we needed to have as rich a sound track as we possibly could. Because most children's television was loaded with sort of chaotic sound tracks that really were about frenzy, more than anything else. And so we had a curriculum about our sound, which was how do we get kids introduced to a wide range of things. Everything from opera to mouth sounds. But I'm giving you more than you want. But it was a very collaborative, very exciting time. Because it was really about creating a brand and creating a relationship with kids.

INTERVIEWER: How does that experience in the 80s compare to today, when you're building your own network and preparing to launch next year?

LAYBOURNE: Well everything is relatable and it's interesting because when we were doing all this stuff in the 80s, we didn't know what the outcome was going to be. We had all these theories and we thought if we listened to kids and we represented them, it would pay off. We thought that if we introduced them to and gave them broader art tastes that that would pay off. We thought that if we were true to them, and that we didn't ever sell them short and we didn't ever treat them with disrespect that that would pay off. And guess what? It did. So all the things that were variables then, are not variables for us now. We know, it's -- although Oxygen will be a very free spirited brand as Nickelodeon is, there are rules. And there are, you know, there are things that you can't shortcut and those are things that people try to shortcut all the time. And it's your immediate impulse. Oh no, do we really have to do that focus group for this? Can't we just skip that step? No, you really do have to listen to your viewer. And so, but what's similar for me, so that's what's different. What's different is we've already done a lot of this. We know it's worth doing. But what's similar is, this new medium, the internet, which is actually much more radically different from what exists today than cable television was radically different from broadcast. If you think about it, broadcast was about trying to get the least objectionable programming for the most number of people. And then cable was trying to get the most interesting programming for a smaller niche audience. You could more fully serve your audience. Well the internet gives you the ability to completely super serve your audience, where you're really able to tailor just precisely what their interests are. And the challenge for somebody who's building a brand is, okay how do we take the power of the internet, and the wide ranging interest that an audience has, that can be pursued, and marry that to a television experience, that can get them introduced to this world, and that you can actually show them how it will be applicable to their lives. And that you can get a broad enough audience to justify the kind of expensive production that you need to do for television.

INTERVIEWER: Could I step back a little and ask about your personal success and what personal qualities do you think have brought you to this position in life?

LAYBOURNE: I think they're so basic, that you know, it starts with the fact that I love people, both audience and employees. And love the creative process. I have a high tolerance for ambiguity, and I'm a very good amalgamator. I really listen and I can hear. I'm a good editor. I can hear a room full of people and pick out, you know, one from column A and one from column B and pull it together. But I like the process and I think that's, you know, I have a lot of enthusiasm.

INTERVIEWER: Did you have any mentors along the way?

LAYBOURNE: I learned from everybody I ever came in contact with. And I still am. And when women in cable in 1990 gave me I think the first award they gave me, they asked me to identify my mentors. And they were doing a tape. And I named Debby BC[???] Jeffrey Darby and Rich Cronin, all people who worked for me. And they refused to tape those people. And it really bothered me, because the traditional way of looking at mentors, is to say, you're learning from a top down situation. And I just don't believe that for a second. And so, in any case, I learned from everybody I've worked with. From Bob Pittman, to Michael Eisner, to Thelma Redstone to Josh Copel, who is 23 years old, and working on our creative team here now.

INTERVIEWER: That's a great attitude to have, that everyone has something to offer.

LAYBOURNE: Right, and it's genuine. The good part about it is, it's genuine.

INTERVIEWER: I know when I interviewed Anne Sweeney, that you know, she sort of named you as someone who has helped her a lot and we're profiling here for our book too. Would you have a couple of words to say about her?

LAYBOURNE: Sure. You know, the - before I do, one of the things I would just say to you is that I do believe in mentoring and when I put together my first executive team at Nickelodeon, I made a promise to the people on that team, which was, if they would come to the table and participate as if they were the executive team of Nickelodeon and not just represent their discipline, that I would make a commitment to them, that they would be in a presidents-in-training program. And if you look at who graduated from that, Rich Cronin, Anne Sweeney, Jeffrey Darby, Debbie [BC], Herb Scannell, Mark Rosenthal, they've all gone on to be presidents. So, basically, I do believe in mentoring tremendously. And I believe in being concrete and out there in the open about it.

INTERVIEWER: Would you have any advice for young people entering the industry today?

LAYBOURNE: I guess my general advice is, that every problem is interesting and that they should look at it in that way. I think sometimes young people have a hierarchy in their minds of what are interesting problems and which aren't. And for me, what worked in my career was that just everything was interesting to me and still is. Whether it's a business problem or a creative problem, or a personnel problem. Or you know, the toughest thing you ever have to do are management issues. And if you can always be looking at your next door neighbor, your co-workers, and your bosses and just think that your obligation is to try to make them look good, it's just a much healthier attitude than what you see in a competitively run company, where the worst kind of behavior is not only tolerated, but reported. So, back to Anne Sweeney. She was the very first person that I hired when I went to Nickelodeon. She was my assistant for about two weeks. She was the worst typist ever. She lied on her typing test. She thought she typed 80 wpm, but it was more like 8. And so I just tried as fast as I could to get her out of being my secretary and into doing what she was so capable of doing. I would say the most unusual thing and I would say Anne's biggest gift is her comfort with not knowing things. And her ability to ask the right people to get the answer and that you know, there's -- you always know what she knows and what she doesn't know. So that you're never as her boss, you never worried about putting her in a new situation. She would get help from -- if she was running international, she would have no problem calling a total stranger like Rupert Murdoch on the phone. Or you know, asking me. And so, we're very close. We've done so much together, it's hard to just limit it to a couple of things. She's just an extraordinarily focused and kind executive.

INTERVIEWER: I got that impression from talking to her too. Just shifting a little, I know you're very busy. Do you have time for a couple more questions?

LAYBOURNE: Yes.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. Are you satisfied with the progress that women have made in the cable and telecommunications industry?

LAYBOURNE: I think women have made tremendous strides and when you think about the fact that we've been in the workforce for 20 years, and the impact that we've had, it's just -- it boggles my mind. I think that, you know, there's always a tendency of how come there aren't more women heads of entertainment companies. You know? How can this be? Well, you know what? It's just things don't change that rapidly, but in this case, I constantly say, wow, isn't this amazing? That I'm in a position where I could promote myself out of a big entertainment company, and get partners, Marcy Carcy, Tom Werner and Karen Mandenbach, who are financial partners and library partners and creative partners, and Oprah Winfrey who is all the above. And that we could actually, you know, three women owned entities could come together and tackle the huge challenge that we're tackling. I think it's pretty remarkable.

INTERVIEWER: It's pretty inspiring too. To know that power and focus. Do you think that emergency of female executives has changed the industry at all?

LAYBOURNE: Absolutely. And when I think about the way MTV network was built, because this was a company that really came out of nowhere. And we had 50% senior management was women when I left and 72% of Nickelodeon was women. But it was the way that meetings were run. The way the company was run, was very much more collaborative, because of the women in the core of the company. And we weren't just in human resource function. The president of MTV was a woman. The president of Nickelodeon was a woman. They were line function jobs. The head of our general counsel is a woman.

INTERVIEWER: During your career, were you ever concerned about balancing professional life with home life at all? I think I read in the article that your kids sort of grew up with Nickelodeon. Felt a part of it.

LAYBOURNE: Yes, it was a pretty ideal situation. And I had my kids when I was really young, and they were by the time my career took off, they were middle aged. They were 8 and 11. And they were always a big part of things. Felt like they invented Nickelodeon and, but you know, truthfully, there were many things we did to make sure that there was balance in our life. I didn't have a very lively social life.

INTERVIEWER: I was nearly done.

LAYBOURNE: Okay.

INTERVIEWER: You have to go, but I appreciate very much having the chance to talk with you.

LAYBOURNE: Great.

INTERVIEWER: We'll send you a copy of the article before we publish it, just so you can have a look at it. Okay thank you so much.

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